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Grilling for health and safety

May 27, 2016
Burgers on a barbeque

As Americans fire up their grills this Memorial Day weekend to enjoy a family picnic, it’s a good idea to revisit a few safety rules when it comes to protecting you and your guests from foodborne illnesses, as well as safe practices around the hot, fiery grill.

Picnic foods under sweltering summer heat can be hazardous to your health, but they don’t have to be, says Executive Chef Richard Callahan from Food and Nutrition Services at Baystate Medical Center, especially if you take the proper precautions to keep your picnic foods safe.

Food Safety Tips

He recommends:

►Using a digital thermometer to cook meats to a minimum temperature so as to reduce the potential for foodborne bacteria. Suggested temperatures include 165º F or higher for whole and ground poultry and ground meats, including hamburger, 45º F or higher for steaks and fish, and 160º F for pork.

►Using separate coolers (40º F or below is needed to prevent bacterial growth) with ice or gel packs – one for ready-to-eat foods and one for foods to be cooked on-site to avoid cross-contamination. Also, use another just for beverages.

►Keeping on ice until ready to use – mayonnaise-based salads such as potato or macaroni and those with meat and other proteins, fruits and vegetables, and proteins such as hot dogs, hamburgers, garden and turkey burgers, tofu, and even sliced tomatoes and green onions – all of which have the potential for quick spoilage. Also, they should not be left out for more than a few minutes after cooking.

Grilling Safety Tips

“Each year at this time we see an increase in burns from the careless use of charcoal barbecue and propane grills, as well as smokers and turkey fryers. It’s not just adults who get hurt, but children, too, who need to be kept far away from the grilling area at all times and long enough afterwards so that anything you have cooked on or with has cooled to room temperature.,” said Dr. Ronald Gross, chief, Trauma, Acute Care Surgery and Emergency Surgery Services at Baystate Medical Center.

“Also, remember that anything that generates heat hot enough to cook on or in should be kept far away from the home in order to avoid setting it on fire and endangering anyone who may be inside,” he added.

Dr. Gross also recommends:

►Never leaving a burning fire unattended.

►Keeping not only kids, but pets away from the grilling or cooking area.

►Having a fire extinguisher close by.

►Never adding more charcoal starter fluid once the fire has begun to avoid a major flare up, and keeping it out of reach of children.

►Using a long-handled grilling tool.

►”Don’t grill drunk.”

Burn Care Tips

“If you or someone helping you at the grill does get burned, most often resulting in injury to the hand or arm, administer simple first aid for a burn that looks like a sunburn. These are first-degree burns,” said Dr. Gross.

He suggests:

►Cooling the burn immediately under cold water for five minutes or longer – do not use ice. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever if needed.

►If it blisters, it is likely deeper than a first-degree burn and you should seek care from a physician. Also, do not pop any of the blisters.

►Calling 911 for major burns.

Does Grilling Really Cause Cancer?

In addition to safe grilling, some say there is also “healthier” grilling to consider. Some research suggests a link between grilled food and cancer, especially if you like your hot dog partially burned and your hamburger well done or charred.

Cooking meats at a high temperature on the grill causes chemicals such as HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) to form. Some say these carcinogens may cause a change in your DNA that can result in cancer.But, while grilling meats can result in higher levels of heterocyclic amines, which have been associated with cancer causation, there is no evidence barbecuing meats results in a higher rate of cancer, according to Dr. Wilson Mertens, vice president and medical director of the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.

“There is, however, consistent data that increased consumption of red meat is associated with higher rates of malignancies such as colon cancer. These findings require years of intake to become relevant,” he said.

As an extra precaution, picnickers might want to consider the following:

►Using marinades and rubs on meats before grilling, which help cut HCA levels nearly 100 percent.

►Flipping meat frequently to reduce carcinogens.

►Choosing leaner cuts so less fat drips into the grill causing a flare-up, which can end up depositing carcinogens on the meat.

►Cleaning your grill frequently to reduce carcinogenic residue that can build up over time.

What is important is that Dr. Mertens suggests overall moderation in the foods we eat – limiting red meats, increasing your fruit and vegetable intake, moderate alcohol use – but eliminating tobacco use and reducing our obesity epidemic are far more important to reducing cancer incidence.

“There are many, and frequent, reports on the interaction of dietary factors and cancer causation, with a great deal of inconsistency and with modest risk. I would advise enjoying the weekend but avoid overeating, something we should do every day of the week,” he said.